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Jeff Johnson, Emmett Reed and Steve Bahmer: Lawmakers need smart solutions for Florida’s growing elder population

Getting older is inevitable but getting older without proper support is preventable.

With our state’s great weather, beautiful beaches and thriving economy, we are truly blessed to be Floridians — and it’s no wonder the Sunshine State is a haven for so much of the nation’s aging population.

By 2030, an estimated 30 percent of Florida’s population will be age 60 or older.

Make no mistake, older Floridians contribute massively to the state’s economy. But with longer life spans in Florida and elsewhere, we are encountering more and more complex, multifaceted care needs.

Florida needs innovative, short- and long-term solutions to the needs of older Floridians.

The Coalition for Silver Solutions, newly formed by AARP, the Florida Health Care Association, and LeadingAge Florida, is focused on offering policymakers a blueprint for the future of long-term in Florida. We believe a broad spectrum of innovative, high-quality care for older Floridians at every life stage makes the most efficient use of public resources.

This begins by advocating for sufficient funding for home- and community-based care and for those who require it, care in long-term residential facilities.

A growing, graying population is changing the care needs in our state. Skilled nursing centers face growing demands for specialized care. These centers are admitting more short-term patients than ever before, looking for rehabilitation services that will let them return home as soon as possible.

At the same time, hospitals are discharging patients more quickly. More long-term care residents are requiring continuous ventilation support, dialysis for their diabetes or kidney failure or IVs to meet their nutritional needs.

As a result, professional caregivers in homes, community services and residential care facilities need to be better trained.

While Florida has about 73,000 residents living in nursing centers and assisted living facilities can handle up to 92,000 residents, the state also has 2.67 million family caregivers providing care for frail or ailing loved ones or friends. These family caregivers are saving Florida taxpayers literally billions of dollars, but many need help to continue to shoulder their responsibilities.

The state has been falling behind on providing funding support for home- and community-based services in recent years.

The waiting lists for such services were nearly 50,000 in 2013 but exploded to more than 71,600 by this past February.

The backbone of any long-term care facility is the working men and women — nurses, certified nurse assistants, therapists and others — who provide medical care and assist seniors with the activities of daily living: walking, dressing, feeding and hygiene.

Yet we face a dilemma, with a growing shortage of individuals entering caregiver roles. At the same time, because care needs are growing more complex, good training for caregivers in homes, communities and residential facilities is increasingly vital.

Last year, the Legislature boosted nursing home care for elders with a $138 million increase in Medicaid funding — money that helped Florida jump into the nation’s Top 10 in overall quality.

But that increase was temporary and is set to go away unless the House and Senate take action to put it back into the state budget. Without these funds, nursing centers throughout the state can expect to lose, on average, $300,000 per year.

That’s a tremendous loss, especially when quality must continue to rise and the need to hire and keep highly skilled staff has reached a critical point. In its simplest form, funding drives staffing and staffing drives quality. Without adequate funding, hiring and retaining the staff necessary to ensure continued quality care will continue to be a challenge.

Getting older is inevitable but getting older without proper support is preventable.

The Coalition for Silver Solutions believes that our lawmakers must seize the opportunity to proactively prepare for the growing population of older Floridians. We are dedicated to older Floridians and the long-term care professionals who serve them, and we are committed to working with Florida lawmakers as they deal with the unique and growing challenges at our doorstep.

To learn more about the Coalition for Silver Solutions, visit eldercareflorida.com.

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Jeff Johnson is AARP Florida state director; Emmett Reed is the executive director of FHCA; Steve Bahmer is president & CEO of LeadingAge Florida.

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